Sunderland fought back from two goals down at the Stadium of Light against Fulham to grab what could be a crucial point in their survival battle and avoid a fourth straight defeat.
A tenth goal of the season from the penalty spot for the in form Dimitar Berbatov and a first for Sascha Riether appeared to have sent the points back to West London but Martin O’Neill’s side rallied well and deservedly grabbed a share of the spoils thanks to a Craig Gardner penalty and an accomplished finish from Stephane Sessegnon.
Sunderland began brightly and John O’Shea almost put his side ahead within the opening two minutes, his header from Adam Johnson’s corner flashing just wide of the top corner with Mark Schwarzer beaten.
The home side continued to press but it was Fulham who went ahead in somewhat strange circumstances on the quarter hour mark. Ashkan Dejagah went down in the box after a trip from Gardner but referee Mark Halsey appeared to wave away the penalty claims before seemingly changing his mind moments later. Replays confirmed Halsey was in the right and up stepped Berbatov to nonchalantly plant his penalty past a statuesque Simon Mignolet. His tenth of the season means that he has reached double figures for three different Premier League clubs in a season.
Sunderland continued to dominate possession in search of an equaliser but were again caught cold by a fluid Fulham counter from their own box, Bryan Ruiz springing clear before playing it wide to Dejagah, whose shot was palmed into Riether’s pass by Mignolet for the defender to smuggle in his first goal for his club.
It seemed harsh on the home side but undeterred they pulled a goal back within two minutes of conceding, again from the penalty spot. Philippe Senderos clumsily tugged back Danny Graham and again Halsey had no hesitation in pointing to the spot for the second time. Gardner did the rest, smashing his penalty into the top corner.
Sunderland finished the half on top, Graham failing to get enough on a good heading opportunity to trouble Schwarzer before the Aussie stopper saved his side with a decent stop from Sessegnon’s fierce drive.
The home side continued where they left off after the break, piling the pressure on Fulham. Johnson found space on the left wing to square to Steven Fletcher and his pass found Graham with a perfect opportunity to open his Sunderland account. But the former Swansea man snatched at his chance, scuffing his shot at Schwarzer.
Despite Sunderland’s dominance in possession, Fulham always looked dangerous on the counter and they looked certain to have restored their two goal advantage when Bryan Ruiz played in Berbatov with a deft chip, Mignolet saving with his legs to deny the Bulgarian a second. It proved a decisive intervention as from his save, Sunderland broke straight up the other end to score.
The move was started and finished by the excellent Sessegnon, who set Johnson away on the left before collecting his return pass to rifle home past Schwarzer after the cross fell to him via a slight deflection off Senderos.
But for a wrong option from Berbatov who shot from distance instead of squaring to the free Dejagah, there seemed only one likely winner. Martin O’Neill brought on James McClean for the ineffectual Graham and his cross nearly provided the winner in the final ten minutes, Fletcher’s header cannoning fortuitously off the back of Senderos and away.
The result means that Sunderland remain 14th, level on points with Newcastle only six points above the drop zone. Fulham are tenth, level on points with Stoke and West Ham but with a superior goal difference.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland: At the heart of most of Sunderland’s attacking threats, his excellent finish gave the home side a deserved share of the points
Sunderland: Mignolet 7, Gardner 7, Colback 6, O'Shea 7, Bramble 6, N'Diaye 6, Larsson 6, Sessegnon 8, Johnson 7, Graham 6, Fletcher 6... Sub: McClean 6
Fulham: Schwarzer 6; Riether 7, Hangeland 6, Senderos 6, Riise 6; Dejagah 6, Karagounis 6, Sidwell 7, Duff 6; Ruiz 6, Berbatov 7. Subs: Frimpong 6, Emanuelson 6, Rodallega 6.